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Movie Curiosities: The Lego Movie

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Though I was more of a K'Nex kid growing up, I do have memories of a time when Lego bricks were just building blocks. Sure, the days of Lego Mania featured sets about astronauts and pirates and whatnot, but there was still a heavy emphasis on building and customizing and creating. It was about giving kids the tools to make their own toys and use them to tell their own stories. But then Lego sold out and became a merchandising tool for so many other franchises (see: Pirates of the CaribbeanStar WarsLord of the Rings, etc.). And that's when Lego wasn't trying to build their own massive worlds and comprehensive mythologies that existed without the player's involvement or input (see: Bionicle, Ninjago, Legends of Chima, etc.). I think Lego itself put it best in 2002, when their company slogan changed from "Just Imagine..." to "Play On." This wasn't the only reason to scoff at news of The Lego Movie. At first, this seemed like another prime example of Hollywood studios starved for ideas and another toy spin-off movie doomed to fail. Also, the inclusion of Batman and a select few other DC Comics characters didn't exactly ease the notion that this was a sell-out movie of the first degree. Seriously, how could anyone make a movie about something so formless and shapeless and have it be anything worthwhile?

But then came the trailer. And I started to think that I was playing right into the filmmakers' hands.

Sure, that "Everything is Awesome" song has gone viral since the film's release, but those few lines of it from the trailer have been stuck in my head since I first heard them. What's more, the trailer had some very funny moments and a great sense of energy, with an apparent "anything goes" approach that made good use of the Lego brand. Then again, the basic premise of "The Chosen One" has been done to death a million times over, and the message of embracing creativity raised my eyebrows a bit, coming from such a blatantly corporate source. Then again, one of the corporations in question is Lego, so I guess it kinda works.

So the film got released and took the entire nation by storm. Critics are raving, ticket lines go around the block, and the film has already beaten the $100 million domestic mark to a pulp in its second weekend. So here I am to join the herd and say that this movie is indeed amazing.

The premise concerns a transparently evil bad guy (Lord Business, voiced by Will Ferrell), who wants to conquer the world with a super-powerful artifact called the "Kragle," but there's another artifact capable of stopping his plans. The latter artifact falls into the hands of Emmet (Chris Pratt), a pathetically ordinary construction worker who comes to be recognized as a hero of prophecy. So Emmet falls in with the Master Builders, a group of intelligent and creative freedom fighters who can make anything out of anything. Their ranks include the love interest (Wyldstyle, voiced by Elizabeth Banks), the wise old mentor (Vitruvius, voiced by Morgan Freeman), a relentlessly happy kitten/unicorn hybrid (Alison Brie), an '80s-style astronaut obsessed with spaceships (Charlie Day), and... um... Batman (Will Arnett).

The plot is nothing special, but here's the thing: The movie knows that. This film is self-aware, and it loves taking the piss out of itself. Whether it's joking about the cliched plot or the Lego peoples' limited anatomy, the film delivers hilarious self-referential humor with clockwork comedic timing. You could make a drinking game out of all the times this movie makes an amusing lampshade joke, and that would make for a wonderful viewing. It's easy to laugh at this film as it laughs at itself, which makes it so much easier to roll with the punches and accept the film on its own crazy terms.

I cannot stress enough how much energy and effort went into this movie. When the characters are taking the scenery and props apart to make crazy new gadgets and vehicles, it always looks amazing. The creativity isn't limited to Legos, either; the film makes sparing but effective use of string, rubber bands, batteries, chewing gum, and other objects. Perhaps most importantly, the film structures its action scenes around the action of building. Though there are some exceptions, the characters usually escape some predicament by pulling together a new invention while they're trying to escape the bad guy. The result is an ingenious cinematic application of the Lego brand while keeping the proceedings fun and fast-paced.

This movie does not take itself seriously, and it sure as hell doesn't take the characters seriously, either. The main characters are pretty much always treated as the paper-thin archetypes that they are, and the characters taken from elsewhere are presented as straight-up parodies of themselves (Batman most of all). But the film still takes its central message of creativity very seriously, and that's what keeps the film grounded.

First of all, I love that the theme of conformity was applied to Emmet and his fellow citizens, because... well, they're Lego people. They were quite literally mass-produced and made to be interchangeable, so the theme of looking and acting perfectly alike seems eerily apropos. But more than that, this means that they're uniquely suited to working and communicating as part of a team. This is what ultimately makes Emmet so valuable to the Master Builders: They're great at coming up with their own unique ideas and acting independently, but they're worthless at bringing their disparate ideas into a single unified whole. The Master Builders need Emmet's knowledge of how to work within the system so that they can help him break it. Emmet needs to step up so that he can be the director that this resistance so badly needs. It's a neat development arc, and one that's much more satisfying than "He's the Special just because we say he is."

On the other end of the spectrum, there's Lord Business. When the movie finally sets down to address its villain, a few surprising layers are added to this paper-thin character. The notion is raised that he isn't the villain because he sets down laws and instructions, he's the villain because he allows for absolutely no deviation. Everything has to be exactly his way, and no one else is allowed to come up with anything new. But with all the resources at his disposal, Lord Business could potentially inspire hundreds of people to help him create amazing new things, if he so desired.

And then we have the big plot point that comes during the climax. If you spoil this plot point for anyone else, or if you actively seek out this plot point before you see the movie, then you are an asshole. I'm sorry, I don't like to insult my audience, but it's the truth. I don't generally have any hard and fast beliefs about spoilers and I'm pretty cool overall with the entire spectrum of spoiler policies, but I'm drawing a line. This is one story point that has to be kept unspoiled for as long as possible. Even if it opens up a whole mess of plot holes, it's still what pushes this movie from a good one to a great one. It's one of the foremost reasons why this is a movie worthy of the childlike joy that we associate with the word "Lego." I so badly wish that I could talk about it in greater detail, but I fear I've already said too much.

The point is that this movie bears the hallmark of a true classic kids' film: It never talks down to its audience. This film is not remotely condescending in any way, though all the self-referential jabs certainly help in that regard. Still, this is how a blatantly commercial film can profess the virtues of creativity without coming off as preachy or manipulative. The statements are so sincere, delivered in such thoughtful and novel ways, that they feel earned. It feels like this movie has something to say beyond "buy our product," inspiring its audience to create and collaborate in ways that go beyond Lego bricks. And it does all of this without compromising the film's energy and fun. If anything, the film's incredibly playful tone serves to enhance the point.

Now for the miscellaneous comments. Though I personally wish that the film could have been animated with stop-motion, the CG usually does a good enough job of making the film look like it was made with actual Lego materials. Granted, it's not exactly hard to make things look shiny and plastic in computer animation (there's a reason why history's first CGI animated feature was about toys), but still. The music overall is very well done and helps sell a lot of the more emotional moments, which is something that this self-deprecating film needed rather badly.

Of course, the musical centerpiece is "Everything is Awesome!!!" It's a song designed to be entirely shallow and void of any artistic merit, yet so simple and catchy that it could be played on repeat ad nauseam. It succeeds all too well. So imagine my shock to find that the song was co-written by Lisa Harriton -- formerly a touring keyboardist and backup singer for the freaking Smashing Pumpkins -- and performed by indie rock darlings Tegan and Sara. That's right: This songthis song, and this song were all performed by the same set of twins. I would never have made that connection.

On a final note, there's the voice cast. I've already mentioned the sterling main cast, but there are so many bit parts and cameos to keep an ear out for. Will Forte is in there, Dave Franco is in there, and Keegan-Michael Key of Key and Peele pokes his head in. Liam Neeson and Nick Offerman both turn in some hilarious voice-over work, Cobie Smulders, Channing Tatum, and Jonah Hill all briefly voice different DC superheroes (remember, this was directed by the same guys who made the 21 Jump Street remake), Shaquille O'Neal voices himself, and I can't even bring myself to spoil a few certain cameos. Suffice to say that a couple of science-fiction icons make an appearance in this movie, voiced by their original actors. You'll know them when you hear them.

Just about everything in The Lego Movie fits together perfectly. The film makes fun of and even subverts its own threadbare premise in surprising ways, which makes for an energetic and infectiously playful good time. This is a kids movie that doesn't condescend to its audience, using inspired and creative means to convey a message of inspiring creativity. The scope is enormous, the comedy is hilarious, and every frame is brimming over with effort and passion.

This movie exceeds all expectations. Go see it now.

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